1988: Mrs. Brown. Given my behavior my first few months in kindergarten, no one could have predicted that as an adult I would voluntarily choose to spend most of my time in a school setting. At Hilltop Elementary, nearly every day until October, four-year-old me either sobbed uncontrollably or went to the nurse’s office, “sick.” If I had attended kindergarten in a Hollywood film studio, my kindergarten teacher would have been a loving hippie with long beaded necklaces, flyway hair, and a soothing voice; I would have occupied a soft spot in her heart. She would have taken special interest in me, nurturing my eccentricities until I composed a symphony or saved the world from an alien invasion. But as we all know, real life is not a movie. My actual kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, was fierce. She had little patience for snots like me.
(To be fair, I should clarify that I only have one vivid memory of kindergarten, and in that particular memory, Mrs. Brown was brutally unsympathetic, but it is possible that she was a loving, soothing hippy the other 179 days.)
During reading time, our class was divided into three groups – the bananas, the grapes, and the apples. Perhaps Mrs. Brown was trying to teach us symbolism early, because the banana group was clearly the dummy group, and the Apples were the high-flyers. I was placed in the middle with the Grapes. Then one day, presumably in November or December, sometime after my crying fits and psychosomatic illnesses subsided, Mrs. Brown dismissed the Apples from the rug to their reading group area. “Today,” she croaked to me as the others stood up to relocate, “you can go with the Apples for reading.” So I did, and I loved it.
The next day, Ms. Brown dismissed the Bananas from the rug first. Then she dismissed the Apples, but I did not get up and follow. “Rita,” she announced so loudly that even the Bananas stopped in their tracks to listen, “if you are not smart enough to remember to go with the Apples, maybe you shouldn’t be with the Apples.”
I wanted to cry. I probably did. I wanted to tell her, “but yesterday you said I could go with the Apples today. You didn’t say I could go today, and tomorrow and next week and forever.” But I didn’t explain. I didn’t move a muscle as she stared at me, expectantly, waiting for me to understand that her public shaming meant “Get up now and catch up with the Apples,” not “Sit here and stay back with the Grapes for ‘forgetting.’”
With her public humiliation of me, in addition to simultaneously shaming all other Grapes and Bananas by implying that they, too, were unintelligent, Mrs. Brown put the label of “smart” within my reach. She demonstrated that this designation could be easily stripped away if I didn’t work for it or earn it, bestowing upon me some insecurities and discussion material for therapists in future years. But most importantly, by giving me the opportunity to learn with the Apples, Mrs. Brown started me on the path of high expectations, leading other teachers to expect more of me, push me, challenge me, have confidence in me, spend more time with me, and teach me just a little bit more than my peers. In short, she initiated the Pygmalion effect that would follow me throughout my school years, giving me an invisible advantage.
So while I don’t have particularly fond memories of kindergarten or Mrs. Brown, I’d still like to thank you, Mrs. Brown. Thank you for making me a more empathetic and mindful teacher, and thank you for believing that girls could be smart, and tough.